A fascinating, if snail-paced, character study, Leave Her to Heaven was surely a daring film for 1945. In fact, the actions of the deeply troubled Ellen Harland (Gene Tierney) pack a wallop even today. While Hollywood is busy remaking iconic films of yesteryear, it’s a shame that still-potent minor classics like this seem to be generally ignored. Based on a best-selling novel by Ben Ames Williams, Leave Her to Heaven is the kind of movie that has great potential for reinterpretation by modern filmmakers. That’s not damning the original with faint praise. Director John M. Stahl and screenwriter Jo Swerling’s film is still a chillingly understated shocker. Twilight Time has issued the film for the first time on Blu-ray as a truly limited edition, with only 3,000 copies available.
The almost brutally slow pacing of Leave Her to Heaven’s first half is both a blessing and a curse. Opening with the prison release of Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), then flashing back to show us how he got there, the film’s first two acts meticulously set up a doomed marriage. It takes a little patience, given that very little seems to be happening for long stretches. Gene Tierney plays the inscrutable Ellen Harland to a tee. Ellen seems, at first, like Richard’s dream girl. Soon we start to get little clues that something is not quite right with her. Richard and Ellen marry quickly after meeting (leaving her former fiancé, a lawyer named Russell, in the dust). The domestic contentedness turns sour after a remarkably cold-hearted incident at Richard’s lakeside retreat. No fair revealing how Russell re-enters the story, but since he’s played by Vincent Price (in an incisive supporting turn) you can count on him being vital.
It’s exceedingly difficult to discuss the plot developments at this point without spoiling the whole picture. Suffice it to say, Richard is deeply committed to his younger brother’s rehabilitation from polio. Young Danny (Darryl Hickman) accompanies Richard and his new bride to their vacation home, where he works to rebuild his endurance by swimming. The supremely passive-aggressive Ellen doesn’t care too much for Danny’s presence, or for the extended family which Richard invites not long after. The second half of the film tracks Ellen’s descent into sociopathic, destructive behavior. Whether the fault of Wilde’s overly cautious performance or simply the way Stahl directed him, Richard comes across as overly slow to realize his wife’s troubles. While still worth watching, Leave Her to Heaven is a prime candidate for remaking. Incidentally, it was actually remade in 1988 as a made-for-TV film, Too Good to be True, though I’d say something higher profile is in order.
Twilight Time’s 1080p transfer, framed at 1.33:1, presents a remarkably clean image throughout Heaven’s duration. The color cinematography by Leon Shamroy won an Oscar and here it looks just about as rich as anyone has a right to expect. Focus is just a bit soft, for the most part, but I can only assume this was by design as it is so consistent. Plenty of fine detail is evident. With this level of quality, it’s easy to forget this film is nearly 70 years old. Audio is generally good, with a simple DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono mix. Some elements sound a tad bit overdriven, coming across a little harsher than they should. Dialogue is clean and always easily intelligible.
As is customary for Twilight Time Blu-ray releases, Alfred Newman’s score is available as a DTS-HD MA 2.0 isolated track. The primary extra is an audio commentary that mixes critical appreciation (courtesy of film critic Richard Schickel) with first-hand reminiscing (courtesy of cast member Darryl Hickman). I found Schickel’s analysis to be a little dry, but overall this is a valuable addition. A couple minutes of vintage newsreel footage and the film’s theatrical trailer round out the supplements. Julie Kirgo’s essay is as informative as ever (she’s writes one for each of the label’s limited editions). For ordering information, while supplies last, visit Twilight Time’s official website.